Tag Archives: Thom van Dooren

Dingoes On My Mind

I was feeling deeply blessed as Payi got me ready for ceremony. She helped me get rubbed up with red ochre, and she painted my face with the White-breasted Sea Eagle design using white ochre she had gathered just the day before. She painted bands of yellow ochre on my lower legs – they were dingo designs. After so many years of thinking and writing about dingoes, it was a particular thrill to know that I would be wearing their marks when I danced.

Deb with White Eagle face paint.
Deb with White Eagle face paint.

The opportunity to get back into Kurrindju Country was exhilarating. The northern dry season had turned crisp, and out in the hills and floodplains of this tropical region the silky oaks were flowering. It was a short distance from Darwin, but we saw Country that had been well burnt. The new grass and cycads were vivid, and a dingo stopped to look at us before ambling off into the bush.

I have worked with the Mak Mak mob, the White-breasted Sea Eagle clan, over many years. Payi’s mother was an inspiration – an immensely strong and knowledgeable woman. Payi, also known as Dr Linda Ford, follows in her mother’s footsteps with dignity, traditional knowledge, and a successful academic career. As part of her Australian Research Council grant she brought together people from about sixteen different clans, and several dance-ceremony traditions for three days of intense bonding, sharing, and teaching.

Payi describes her action-based cultural survival research this way: ‘Ceremonial performance is a socially powerful site of exchange, transmission and transformation of relationship to country, kin and identity. The project aims to extend the power of ceremony to benefit future generations of Indigenous people’s identity and Australia’s shared history.’

Belyuen men dancing wangga in Kurrindju Country
Belyuen men dancing wangga in Kurrindju Country

I will have more to say in a future essay about the gathering Payi organised. Just at the moment my thoughts have been brutally grabbed back to the world of man-made mass-death. For while we were celebrating cultural continuities, shared histories, multi-species communities, Country, and non-human kin, dingoes were once again being vilified, tortured, and degraded.

This latest program is a doozy, and as with so much that goes wrong in the mass-killing that lurks under the label ‘conservation’, the idea of the ‘pest’ was at the core. With the objective of killing goats on Pelorus Island in the Great Barrier Reef (Queensland), two desexed male dingoes have been taken to the island. According to the news report, two more will be brought in. The idea is that the island will be better off without introduced goats, and the expectation is that the dingoes will kill the goats. The dingoes can’t breed, and each one is fitted out with a large radio collar and a capsule of 1080 poison that can be released to kill the individual once the project is complete.

Dingo, Alexandre Roux (CC)
Dingo, Alexandre Roux (CC)

Rather than use methods that may reduce suffering, such as sharp-shooting, this program uses dingoes as human proxies, hoping they’ll do the killing. The Queensland RSPCA is concerned about the suffering of goats. Questions arise: will the dingoes actually kill the goats? Lyn Watson, a dingo expert, says they are likely to kill smaller animals first, and will not turn to goats until they reach a ‘starvation situation’. It seems probable that many goats will die very stressfully and painfully, but only after the dingoes have themselves become starved and stressed.

The ramifications of the cruelty of this program are so enormous that perhaps they haven’t fully been thought through. The 1080 poison causes terrible deaths. Once the humans have no more use for the dingoes, they are condemned to the very suffering the program purports to reduce.

One suggestion is that it is cheaper to get dingoes involved than to employ humans. Such a calculus of engineered and industrialised death is appalling. It gets worse. Dingoes are social animals. They live in family groups, and they find the meaning of their lives in the context of their family responsibilities. This is the context within which they fulfil their ecological functions. Desexed males do not constitute family groups. There is no way that they can live adequate social and ecological lives. The program condemns dingoes to anxiety and suffering in life, and terminates them with an appalling death.

Evelyn Downs Dingoes (Arian Wallach)
Evelyn Downs Dingoes (Arian Wallach)

And what about the humans in this story? To treat other living beings as objects, rather than as subjects in their own right, is to step into the domain of instrumental torture. This plan extends the human capacity to cause suffering, terror, misery, and industrialised death. It draws other creatures into human designs for mass-death, shifting the blood and suffering away from the humans. The unwanted goats are to be eliminated by proxies, purportedly for the good of the island. Those proxies, the dingoes, will then be eliminated by remote control when someone in an office somewhere triggers the 1080.

According to one report, this plan is suggested to be consistent with compassionate conservation. Let’s be clear that the program is riddled with hubris and hard-heartedness; there is no compassion, and there are no clean hands. Rather, there is the old divide and conquer mentality: identify the enemy, find an efficient solution, eliminate, terminate.

The news of this program is a timely reminder that colonisation is a multi-stranded endeavour that is worked out across human and nonhuman domains. Many current conservation schemes use industrialised killing to try to control wildlife populations, and in doing so they reproduce the same hubristic, hard-hearted determination to control the land through dispossession, appropriation, replacement and slaughter.

Use a ‘pest’ to take care of a ‘pest’ seems to be the superficial logic. It is a logic of violence and self-serving justification. It draws on the rationale of cost-benefit to avoid ethics, and it draws on a history of industrialised killing; it aims to expedite death. The logic has a certain seduction: I hate to see Country lose its flourishing abundance, and many invasives have devastating effects on diversity and abundance. I agree that we settler-descended people who have brought so much damage to these lands and waters have a duty to try to curtail the damage and to enhance Country’s capacity for resilience. At the same time, Frank Egler’s great comment comes to mind: ecosystems are not only more complex than we think, they’re more complex than we can think. The power of Country to find its own resilience is beyond human engineering. I am sure we can help, but it is the worst sort of folly to think we can engineer.

The great ethical disaster is to justify the suffering of others by reference to something that has been determined to be a ‘greater good’.

Industrialised killing is not the final story. It is contested by many settler-descended people and by many Aboriginal people. And while there is no consensus on how to care for Country that has been radically impacted by colonisation and ecocide, Land Rights offers a threshold across which old ways of living generously, and new ways of living carefully can connect.

Many years ago Bruce Rose (no relation) carried out research with Aboriginal people in Central Australia, asking about their views on feral animals. He found that the question was not so much where animals had come from, but how they had managed to fit in: ‘the worth of an animal lies in its ability to live and flourish in the environment, not in its claim to being an original component of the fauna’. He found that many Aboriginal people expressed the idea the Country itself shows who belongs and who doesn’t. He concluded that ‘ethics and value judgements which support playing favourites with some species over others’ do not fit easily into the views of Aboriginal Elders.

Cattle and Dingoes at Evelyn Downs (A. Wallach)
Cattle and Dingoes at Evelyn Downs (A. Wallach)

Country decides! A recent video made by Arian Wallach using critter cams in ‘rare and remote locations’ shows animals getting about at night in an area where they are protected from lethal controls. It is thrilling for the fact that the coming and going of a range of animals takes place without their having to adjust their activities to accommodate humans. These critter cam opportunities show what technology can do when it is not being driven by deathwork. Here we have the opportunity to see others in unguarded moments of their own lives. It may cause a whisper of embarrassment to realise how pervy it is to snoop on other creatures’ lives, but at the same time, animals are in general so wary of humans, and with such good reason, that it is only through technological mediation that we may ever be able to glimpse the beauty of their autonomous, unselfconscious living.

Among the many gifts that Aboriginal people bring to what Payi calls ‘Australia’s shared history’ is the knowledge of living with, and within, Country. This is knowledge that involves humans inhabiting webs of life as participants rather than as murderous controllers. The Pelorus Island debacle shows yet again how desperately we need such knowledge.

© Deborah Bird Rose, 2016

Resources:

To learn more about Mak Mak country, see the book we co-authored: Country of the Heart is published by Aboriginal Studies Press. Dr Linda Payi Ford’s brief summary of her research can be found on facebook (visit here).

Two articles on the Pelorus Island fiasco are particularly useful, one in the Conversation (read here), and one on ABC news (read here).

To learn more about Lyn Watson’s work with dingoes at the Sanctuary and Research Centre, visit the Foundation home page (here).

Bruce Rose’s study is called Land Management Issues: Attitudes and Perceptions Amongst Aboriginal People of Central Australia (Alice Springs: Central Land Council, 1995). I have written about this study, and about the control of ‘ferals’ more generally in my essay ‘Judas Work: Four Modes of Sorrow’ (read here).  To learn more about violent-care in conservation, see Thom van Dooren’s excellent article (read here)

Arian Wallach’s video is called ‘Dingo for Biodiversity Project 2016 Field Expedition’. It was published July 29, 2016 (view here).

It is widely accepted in the field of animal ethics that animals whose lives have been put to human uses deserve to live under conditions that offer quality of life commensurate with their needs as individuals and their nature as members of a species. This is well established in relation to zoo animals, for example.

Numerous essays on this site address pests, the suffering others, and ethics of care.

 

Hope is the Way of the World

‘Hope springs eternal in the human breast’. I had thought it was another great Shakespeare quote, but it turns out to come from Alexander Pope. I have experienced this, almost everyone has. Often there seems to be no particular reason for it. Nor is there any privileged species. Unexpectedly, pervasively, hope bubbles up all over the place. Hope is life’s desire for more life. It is the loom on which fabric of life is woven.

baby birds

Hope is connected to the fact that the arrow of time only moves in one direction, at least for us. This may not be the case for certain sub-atomic entities (if that’s the right word), but for all of us macro-creatures, time is a one-way process. No one knows what the future holds, exactly. Everyone has to act on their best judgement. We humans have ethics and principles to guide us, and we can make thoughtful projections, but there’s always uncertainty. Such is life – risky. Every new life is an embodiment of hope.

I was twice drawn to think about hope recently. In both cases the context was extinction. First came the report that the Federal Government has placed forty-nine more species on the threatened species list. Included in this reassessment is the up-grading of a number of species to ‘critically endangered’. The primary cause of all this peril is land clearing. As is well known, land clearing has been part of Australian settler culture right from the beginning. For some people, clearing has become densely entangled with their sense of personal freedom to the point where it seems that the greater good has no claim upon them. The ‘right’ to eradicate biotic communities is spurious of course; there is no such inalienable right. Indeed, there are many excellent reasons why flourishing ecosystems should not be transformed into narcissistic mirrors of human supremacy.

Swift parrot in Canberra, Leo (CC)
Swift parrot in Canberra, Leo (CC)

The larger issue is that the language of individual rights provides a mask for industrial plunder. And in a powerful twist of narcissistic thinking, industries like forestry and coal represent themselves as if the greater good has no claim on them because they already encompass it.

Just at the moment  the case of the swift parrot looms large. Habitat for this critically endangered bird has been and continues to be under threat from clearing on the mainland and from forestry in critical breeding areas in Tasmania. These parrots nest in tree hollows, and it takes a hundred years at the least for deep hollows to form. The recovery plan for this marvellous bird does not actually specify the extent to which its habitat must be protected.

Forestry Tasmania, Cowirrie (CC)
Forestry Tasmania, Cowirrie (CC)

This is just one example among very many, and it shows a wilful, heart-breaking, infuriating lack of action by government. A recent report co-authored by the Australian Conservation Foundation, Birdlife Australia, and Environmental Justice Australia found that ‘successive governments have avoided their responsibility to protect threatened species habitat and have instead entrenched the process of extinction.

The authors make the important point that while governments are shirking their responsibilities, the situation by no means impossible. Actually, ‘… extinction is far from inevitable for the vast majority of threatened species in Australia. Extinction is the result of the decisions made by successive governments to ignore their own scientific advisers, and to neglect their obligation under our environmental laws to protect the ongoing evolution of life on the Australian continent.’

Swift parrot, Tasmania, Lizardstomp (CC)
Swift parrot, Tasmania, Lizardstomp (CC)

It is tempting to launch into a rave about the pathetic state of politics in most of the world today, but I think we all know this. Frustration is widespread, and its causes are well understood. The current state of political inaction induces a sense of hopelessness in the face of both the terrible injustices inflicted in social and ecological spheres and the politicians’ refusal to fulfil the democratic contract.

Let’s go back to swift parrots (Lathamus discolor). Parrots are an ancient family. They originated in here in Australia. Tim Low invites us to think of Cretaceous forests with ‘birds flitting past dinosaurs to lap at scarlet and orange sprays’ of flowers. Swift parrots are ‘rich patch nomads’; they roam widely in search of sugar ‘hot spots’, and they are great pollinators. They live mutualistically with the ‘bird-adapted’ trees of Australia which they pollinate. They are intelligent creatures with extensive repertoires of communication and play; for millennia they were the most intelligent species on Earth. In case you were wondering, birds experience pain and misery.

The long history of parrots and trees in Australia is not just a matter of chance. Parrots nurture and teach their young. Their continuity is an intergenerational achievement. Thom van Dooren writes: ‘Approached with attentiveness to evolutionary history and a focus on the complex and difficult emergence of each new generation, it is clear that this thing we call a “species” is an incredible achievement.’ He is inviting us to recognise and appreciate ‘the immensity of … intergenerational work: the skill, commitment, cooperation, and hard work, alongside serendipity,’ that go into the succession of generations.

Thinking up-close with swift parrots, and trees, and indeed with many living creatures, calls us to remember that every loss of a new generation, every future that is extinguished, is an act of brutality that destroys hope. Not mine, or yours, necessarily, but the hopes of others.

Corellas in tree hollow, Francisco Martins (CC)
Corellas in tree hollow, Francisco Martins (CC)

This brings me to my second stimulus in thinking about hope. Last week I was asked to participate in a forum in New York on the question of ‘Hope in a Time of Extinction’. I decided not to Skype in; I am definitely not at my best at two in the morning. Instead, I wrote a short piece to share with the group. With a few amendments, here is my offering:

~~~

I couldn’t have it imagined it – couldn’t have imagined when I was a child that there would come a day when I would think and write about extinction because I was living in a time when much of what I loved in the world was being trashed. We live with the unimaginable, and for writers there are many pitfalls. Some people have from time to time dealt with trying to write about the unimaginable by stretching language to try to force it beyond itself. Often the result is fairly incomprehensible. In our time we need a wide net of fully comprehensible words, but then we hit temptations in the form of trying to make big issues smaller. I am thinking, for example, of the temptation to make it easy (how to save the planet in ten easy steps); to naturalise issues (there have been other extinctions, nature survives); to count and quibble (we have lots of DNA kept safe for the future); to produce justifications (there are cures for cancer out there that we haven’t discovered yet); to engage in triage (we can’t save everything, bad luck for the ones that aren’t cute); the list goes on.

Worst of all, though, is the temptation to give up and say nothing. When I think of silence I think (inevitably) of Emmanuel Levinas and his great words about how we are called into ethics by others. He said: ‘the face is the other before death, looking through and exposing death. … [T]he face is the other who asks me not to let him die alone, as if to do so were to become an accomplice in his death. Thus the face says to me: “you shall not kill”’.

These words strike right to the heart of hope and love in this time of extinction.  The call ’do not abandon’ is precisely where we are today in relation to all the species at the edge of the abyss. And Levinas adds the terrible reminder that to abandon others is as if to become an accomplice in death.

Flying-fox orphan, Paislie Hadley (CC)
Flying-fox orphan, Paislie Hadley (CC)

We are asked to consider the possibility that a great deal of death is going to happen without our being able to do enough. And probably all that we do can never be enough within the parameters of this massive deathscape. And still we are called. This ethical call is in the present, and it is not necessarily about changing the future. ’Do not abandon’: do not kill the hope in the eyes of those who suffer and those who are dying, and those who are at the edge.

To such encounters we humans bring a hope that is refined by focussing on the present. I learned a lot about this kind of intersubjective, ethical practice in the research I have been carrying out with wildlife volunteers. Consider the people who work with critically endangered monk seals in Hawai’i.  Most of them were deeply dedicated; they loved the work they did, loved the monk seals they protected, and loved the beaches where their lives and monk seals’ lives intersected. They were well aware that monk seals are the most critically endangered marine mammal and that the prognosis for survival is not good.

Monk seal, protected at Waikiki Beach
Monk seal, protected at Waikiki Beach

And yet for the most part they refused to explain their commitment in terms of probabilities. They did not do calculations; there was no cost-benefit analysis; there was no pivot by which species survival became the measure of the meaningfulness of action today. In fact, they rarely talked about the future. No, they were out there every day patrolling the beaches and, as necessary, protecting monk seals because they understood how risky life has become for them, and they would not stand by and do nothing.

This is not a warm or cozy image of hope; I am drawn to the indomitable strength of it. I admired the volunteers for their refusal to treat monk seals as if they were objects of management. Or as if they were in any way pathetic. In my words (not theirs), they refused to abandon monk seals as subjects in their own right by objectifying or babying them. Most of all, the volunteers showed a way into multispecies hope.

Humans set aside their own hopes, and worked to honour the hopefulness of others.

One final thing: along with hope, perhaps it is good in this time of extinction to think of something along the lines of moral support. It will almost certainly be the case that much of what we do as activists will not succeed in turning around the extinction cascades now in process. Too much has happened, and the human situation is not good either. The greedy, powerful, destructive, devourers of Earth are very much on the rampage.

Monk seal mum and pup, Kaua'i
Monk seal mum and pup, Kaua’i

Moral support: perhaps this is what hope is when it is shared in multispecies contexts. It supports the very possibility of hopefulness. And hope is here, all around us. Creatures want to live. The Earth itself wants life, wants diversity, wants synergies, symbioses, mutualisms, energy flows. It is all risky. Hope is the way of Earth.

Every moment in which we refuse to abandon others, and refuse to bow down to power, and refuse to speak the language of cost-benefit in the context of mass-death, every such moment is an alignment with the force and power of Earth’s desire for diversity, its hopefulness. We are not alone.

© Deborah Bird Rose, 2016

 

Resources:

I drew on research in the U.S. because I was addressing an audience in New York. Similar things could be said about volunteers here in Australia, and I will soon be taking up analysis of some of their excellent work.

The report discussed in this essay is: ‘Recovery Planning: Restoring Life to our threatened species’, Authored by the Australian Conservation Foundation, Birdlife Australia, and Environmental Justice Australia (read here). Information on the government’s recent listing of endangered species comes from The Guardian (read here).

The quotes and other information from Tim Low are taken from his excellent book Where Song Began. Quotes from my friend and colleague Thom van Dooren come from Flight Ways, a wonderful recent book on extinctions and ethics. To learn more about Thom’s fascinating work, visit his website.

Land clearing comes up regularly in these essays, see for example ‘So Many Faces’.

The Levinas quote is from the book Face to Face with Levinas, edited by Richard Cohen.

Thanks to the Left Forum for inviting me to participate on the subject of Hope in a Time of Extinction.

Site Fidelity

A couple of weeks ago I was swimming in Lake Washington. I had paddled about in this large snow-fed Seattle lake when I was a child, and in recent years it has been wonderful to return. This October I was using a lazy breaststroke so that I could hold Mt Rainier in my sight. The lake shimmered with ripples, waves and sun. The mountain gleamed with snow and ice, light and shadow.

Lake and Mountain, Selbe B (CC)
Lake and Mountain, Selbe B (CC)

It was a perfect swim, and I reflected with gratitude that the outcome of the geographical tug of war between my father (east coast) and mother (west coast) had never really been in doubt. Yes, we bounced back and forth, also sometimes landing in regions between the two coasts, but for the past several decades it has been Seattle, the lake, the mountains and the Pacific Ocean that have anchored my natal family and given a great deal of meaning to our lives. Many of our stories and many of the events of our lives have been connected to the beauty and generosity of lake and mountain.

How one comes to be attached to specific places is a process that is both deeply known and yet also forever mysterious. Many attachments are formed early, some stick and some do not. Some people experience them more deeply and non-negotiably than others, but in all cases attachments to place also involve time. Memories form around places, and as they are acted upon they accumulate, and so they are enhanced.

Attachments to place are deeply embedded in memory, action, and anticipation.

Place-action becomes part of the process of meaning-making, so that place, like the living creatures who grow into it, exists in the lives and minds of creatures who themselves come and go, and are sustained by place. It may not be so well known that humans are by no means the only creatures to form attachments to place. Amongst nonhuman animals one process of attachment is known as site fidelity (the tendency or desire to return).

Thom van Dooren and I recently wrote an article about place and meaning-making in the lives of two animal species who have strong place-attachments here in Sydney – flying-foxes and little penguins. We wanted to make the point that whatever functionalities are involved in creatures’ determination to return to the same places to breed (philopatry), there is also the wider domain of meaning which exceeds functionality.

These animals, we were saying, inhabit places made meaningful through their own practices of memory, action and anticipation. As with humans, attachment is both enriching and exposing. The great philosopher of place, Edward Casey, reminds us that to be emplaced is also to face the ‘unhappy prospect’ of becoming unplaced. He was pointing toward the anguish of those whose homes are no longer inhabitable.

Little penguins at Manly, cocoa3c (CC)
Little penguins at Manly, cocoa3c (CC)

As Thom explains in the context of nonhumans, meaningful places are not just ‘habitats’. They are not interchangeable, but rather are experiential worlds that can be understood as ‘home’. It follows that site fidelity, although it sounds quite formal, is really about intimacy: the familiarity, security, knowledge, confidence, and intergenerational gifting that goes into making homes.

While I was in Seattle I was forcibly reminded that there is a strong human dimension to home and homelessness that may often be overlooked: ‘home’ is not just a roof over one’s head, but is a complicated and irreplaceable world of meaning. People want to go home, or to find home, and so do those other animals whose lives are shaped by site fidelity. Penguins return to their burrows in Manly every year in spite of the fact that every year the place becomes more built-up, noisy and dangerous. Flying-foxes attempt to return to their camps every year, and it takes sonic torture and other horrific modes of ‘dispersal’ to force them away from their home places.

Grey-headed flying-fox, Nick Edards
Grey-headed flying-fox, Nick Edards

I couldn’t help but think about the lives of creatures I love as I enacted my own site fidelity by swimming in the lake. We try to make things better for ourselves as humans, at least some of the time. Lake Washington became so polluted once that it was dangerous to swim in, but it has been cleaned up. What, though, do we do to ease the anguish of nonhumans whose attachments to place and to their future generations is every bit as committed as ours?

My family’s site fidelity, like that of flying-foxes and penguins, has been an intergenerational project. Flying-foxes return to maternity camps to give birth, penguins return to their familiar burrows to hatch and fledge their young. In my family, Lake Washington was where my mother and her parents had swum, and our family kept returning.

Recently we added another chapter to our attachments to place, time and generations when our mother died in her bed at home facing the lake. We kept her body with us until the afternoon, and when the professionals came to take her away we sang ‘Will the circle be unbroken’. The clouds parted and the sun shone with astonishing heat and brilliance.

There was only one thing to do:   we ran to the jetty and jumped into the lake.

DSC03200

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources: The article Thom and I wrote is called ‘Storied-places in a multispecies city’ (read here).

Edward Casey’s work on becoming ‘unplaced’. as I mention here, can be found in one of his major books Getting Back Into Place.

Little penguins are also the subject of a chapter in Thom’s book Flight Ways, a terrific new book about which I will have more to say soon.

Creature-Languages

Perhaps the funniest words on Earth come from Mundari, a language spoken by tribal peoples in east India, Bangladesh and Nepal. One of the greats is ribuy-tibuy. It means ‘the sound, sight, or motion of a fat person’s buttocks rubbing together as they walk’. Another fine term is rawa-dawa, ‘the sensation of suddenly realising you can do something reprehensible, and no-one is there to witness it’. The Mundari terms belong to a terrific word category that seems to be lacking in English – the ideophone. These words encode sight, sound, smell or feelings within one encompassing term.

Human language is a marvellous capability, both biologically based and socially learned. One of the markers of our being a species is that we humans can all learn each others’ languages. Along with that capacity comes the sense of kinship – we (all of us human language participants) can appreciate the others – their humour, their complexity, their obscurities, their differences, their occasional bizarreness.  And of course we appreciate (or just as often grumble about) the changing vivacity (or, to some, the lack of respect for tradition) of our own language(s).

speech bubble

The capacity for learning is built into our brains, just as the capacity for speech is built into our larynx and windpipe. Actual languages, though, are incredibly diverse in both their structures and their vocabularies. There are languages that pack whole sentences into a single complex word, languages that use sounds that are difficult both to make and to distinguish, languages like signing that don’t use sounds at all, languages that have whole categories of words that other languages don’t have, and a thousand other variations. Of course we love our languages! We learn them and develop our skills with them throughout life; we play with them, and express many of our deepest thoughts, fears, loves, emotions and dreams in them.

In many ways we become ourselves, as individuals and as members of cultural and social groups, through language.

Cricket, by Mulacmail (CC)
Cricket, by Mulacmail (CC)

It is not surprising that for many people language is another of those markers of a boundary erected to separate humans from other living beings. But here again, not all humans take a human-centric view of languages. One of the books I keep coming back to is The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common. Alphonso Lingis takes this broad and inclusive view of language:

‘Of course the language of gregarious insects, ants and bees, is representational, is governed by correspondence with the layout of things, and is a kinesics of truth. But language begins with the evolution of organs for vocalization among insects not socialised into colonies, whose vocalizations consist entirely of a seductive chant. Their organs … [are] reiterating and reaffirming the forces of beauty, health, and superabundant vitality.’

In brief: human language is one mode of expression within the wider eloquence of Earth life.

Many of the Aboriginal people who taught me were quite clear that other creatures have their own languages. It is not surprising that we cannot understand them; they are who they are and we are who we are. Thinking of them as language creatures is part of the wider mode of understanding the others as creatures not so unlike ourselves.

'Brolga Talking' by David Jenkins (CC)
‘Brolga Talking’ by David Jenkins (CC)

Not only language, then, but other forms of culture as well may be part of Earth life. One of the old people from whom I have learned so much in North Australia was Doug Campbell. In his words: ‘birds got ceremony of their own – brolga, turkey, crow, hawk, white and black cockatoo – all got ceremony, women’s side, men’s side, … everything.’ Plants are sentient too, and, according to many Aboriginal people, the earth itself has culture and power within it. In this line of thought, we are all culture-creatures: we are intelligent, we act with purpose, we communicate and take notice, we participate in a world of multiple purposes. It is a multi-cultural world from inside the earth right on through.

My friend Richard Nelson spoke with and from Indigenous perspectives in his recent speech on Earth languages (view here). In totally engaging manner and style, he was making the profound point that Earth’s expressivity includes much that is not alive in the usual sense of the term, like wind and ice. He concluded:

The whole Earth is one great language family.

I can almost hear the sceptics saying that at the very least, our languages are more complex than those of others. Perhaps this is so. A major new study of human languages concludes that we are the only known species whose communication system varies fundamentally in both form and content. The caveat is that very little is known about other nonhuman languages. But does it follow that love of our kind of language means that it is somehow the best of all possible languages?

The poet Peter Boyle addresses these questions as part of a fascinating article called ‘Being Job – In Three Parts’. He is musing on the Biblical Book of Job, and reflecting on the fact that Job addressed G-d, and G-d answered Job. But in what language? Peter writes:

‘It seems reasonable to suppose that G-d has no intrinsic preference for English over Urdu, Pashtun over Aramaic, Sanskrit over Pitjantjatjara. The language spoken by the aboriginal inhabitants of the Canary Islands would seem as close to his heart as Homeric Greek or old Slavonic. It would be difficult not to assert that G-d would be equally at home in the elaborate grammar of turtles as in the speech of finches, that the soaring discourse of the eagle carries no more and no less charm than the meditative vibration of hornets.’

As with G-d, so with Earth: expressivity is the way of life, and we are all part of it.

If language is a mode of expressing and affirming forces of beauty, health, and vitality, as Lingis tells us, must we limit our attention to sounds? After all, some human languages are soundless, so why not other creature-languages as well?

Martin Burd is an evolutionary ecologist at Monash University. Recently he published a report on research carried out by an international team: ‘Colourful language – it’s how Aussie birds and flowers “speak”’. He notes that much of the colour we see in the nonhuman world adorns flowers and birds. But, he says, ‘we are accidental eavesdroppers on the visual conversations in which they are engaged’. Colourful birds are signalling to potential mates. Colourful flowers also search for mates, Burd tells us, but they do so by first communicating to pollinators, many of whom are birds.

The flowers that appear red to humans have evolved to appeal to the visual system of honeyeaters. Burd concluded that: ‘… many flowering species had evolved to “talk” to birds using a very particular set of colour “words”.’ The scientists concluded that this convergence of flower colour and bird visual system had probably evolved independently far more times than would be expected if it were random, and the next phase of the research will investigate these relationships on other continents with other bird-flower mutualisms.

'Honeyeater Heaven', by John Powell (CC)
‘Honeyeater Heaven’, by John Powell (CC)

I love the thought of us humans being ‘accidental eavesdroppers’. It is such a wonderful reminder that the great communicative, expressive Earth is not all about us. At the same time, of course, some creatures do, from time to time, address a human. The invitation to play is well known, while the growl that says ‘back off’ is a readily identifiable example of a great scheme of expressive messages saying ‘don’t touch!’. We are probably hard-wired as mammals to get many of these messages without having to stop and think too closely.

Much of our engagement with the expressive languages of Earth, though, calls on our imagination, knowledge, and, as Richard Nelson would say, our wisdom.

To be part of the world in which others also communicate in their own languages is, for the human, an opportunity to imagine one’s self sharing worlds with others. We do this all the time with stories, jokes, songs, images, and, of course, poetry. Most of the time, it must be said, we do it on our terms.

One of my favourite poems by Peter Boyle refuses the temptation to draw others into our worlds. ‘Cicada’ comes from the prize-winning book Apocrypha. This is a complex book in which poems are presented as the work of various imagined poets whose own imaginings find their way into both lyric and prose poetry. The great theme of expressiveness runs through all the work. The (imagined) author of ‘Cicada’ is Irene Philologos, and her poetic imagination takes her into an insect world.

Hanging upside down
perched in its own
Heaven
the cicada sings:
“I have eaten and am full.
This
is good.”
Does it sing for us?
Possibly.
If we too have been touched all over by fire
If we have balanced for hours
on the infinite porosity of earth
and know what it’s like
to be the casket of a time-beat
ticking away at metamorphosis
If at times our head and arms have wavered
like a delicate carapace flooded
by all the sky wants us to take in
If we can imagine the dryness of wind
caressing our black shell
all through the hot days
all through the fire of nights
when our eyes are beads of hard blackness
and our frame
breaks open to the homeless language of wind
If we can imagine ourselves
an assemblage of shell and flesh
scattered by the serene indifference of life
If we can call all this
happiness.

(from Irene Philologos, A poetic journal of ten years in Boeotia © Peter Boyle)

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

 

Cicada, by Colin Howley (CC)
Cicada, by Colin Howley (CC)
ResourcesInformation on human languages is drawn from an article by Evans and Levinson (read here).
Peter Boyle’s essay on Job is found in the book Sacred Australia: Post-secular considerations. Information on Peter Boyle’s book Apocrypha can be found here.
Alphonso Lingis: The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common
Martin Burd’s fascinating article can be found here.
A few years ago I wrote an essay with my colleagues Thom van Dooren and Stuart Cooke called ‘Ravens at Play’ in which we reflected on some of the dilemmas of being addressed by others. (view here)

How To Love A “Pest”

I laughed when I read the Canberra Times headline ‘Liberals environment spokeswoman suggests eradication of native bird species’. It turns out that some of the spokeswoman’s constituents are annoyed by the migratory cuckoo known as the common koel (Eudynamys scolopacea), and because they’re annoyed they want something done. She herself referred to the birds as ‘imported pests’, and wanted them managed or eradicated.

Koel, wikimedia commons
Koel, wikimedia commons

Surely not, I thought! It is true that the call of the male koel is loud and insistent, but let’s be honest: homo sapiens is the only animal to have invented the two-stroke engine and used it to acoustically assault the suburbs. Mowers, whipper-snippers, angle-grinders, chain-saws and other DIY tools of destruction and construction out-perform koels all year round.

Actually, I like koels. I didn’t get to hear them arrive in Sydney this year, and I felt deprived. But like or dislike, can anyone seriously entertain the idea that just because something is annoying is ought to be gotten rid of?

The answer, unfortunately, is ‘yes’, as one quickly learns from a visit to the website of the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre (CRC). CRC’s are a government initiative that links industry, universities, stakeholders, and others for the purpose of furthering knowledge and capacity on matters of national concern. The Invasive Animals CRC has as its focus vertebrates that are deemed to be invasive either because they are non-native or because they have become identified as a ‘pest’, or both. There we learn that ‘The Invasive Animals CRC creates new technologies and integrated strategies to reduce the impact of invasive animals on Australia’s economy, environment, and people’. Technologies, when we explore the term, turn out to be a range of methods involving both killing and genetic engineering to reduce or eliminate reproductive capacity.

One of the key terms is ‘pest’. Many thoughtful persons have noted that  once an animal is declared ‘pest’, or ‘vermin’, or even ‘invasive’, something happens within the sensibilities of many humans. As my friend Thom van Dooren discovered in his research on foxes and the penguin colony at Manly in Sydney, those animals deemed not to belong slip into a category of those whose ‘lives are not legitimate lives within the context of contemporary ecologies, and as such … their deaths are not only condoned (as they often are in legislation), but also in an important sense demanded for the sake of any genuine conservation’.

Killing for conservation is certainly problematic, and advocates of compassionate conservation argue that it is inherently wrong. But the problems with ‘pests’ go much deeper. To quote educational materials provided via the CRC website: ‘The word “pest” is used to describe an animal that causes serious damage to a valued resource. Such a pest may be destructive, a nuisance, noisy or simply not wanted.’ From this open-ended definition, decisions are made about which lives matter and which lives don’t.

The Invasive Animals CRC website gives you a link to feral.org.au, and there you really start to learn about the nitty-gritty of decision-making and killing. The PestSmart YouTube Channel offers short tutorials on all manner of killing. You can learn, for example, how to rip up rabbit warrens.

Rabbit Photo: Arian Wallach
Rabbit
Photo: Arian Wallach

What you don’t learn is just how dreadful this method is for the rabbits. My friend Freya Mathews, a leading environmental philosopher, encountered this method when she began investigating ways of removing rabbits from her bio-conservation property. In her words:

‘Ripping involves the mechanical destruction of warrens by large blades attached to a tractor. I had rejected ripping earlier on account of the impact of the heavy ripping vehicles on soil and vegetation, but now that the contractors were more or less insisting, I thought I had better investigate the effect of the procedure on rabbits themselves. To my horror I found that in the course of ripping, rabbits inside the warrens are themselves ripped – they are simply sliced up, with those that are not killed outright being left to die, buried alive with appalling injuries, all conveniently out of sight. I had been willing to kill rabbits for the sake of ecological restoration, but this was way too much – it was torture, brutal beyond imagining. Yet this is one of the standard methods of rabbit management, routinely practised across the country, prescribed in all the government literature and on all the official web sites.’

Other video tutorials show how to set mechanical injectors into bait so that target animals (foxes, dingoes) will be orally injected with 1080 or cyanide. You learn that injectors don’t replace trapping and aerial baiting, they are just one tool among many.

Dingo Photo: Arian Wallach
Dingo
Photo: Arian Wallach

You don’t learn that the World League for Protection of Animals has concluded that 1080 poison (sodium monofluoroacetate), which is banned in almost every country in the world, should also be banned in Australia ‘not only for its cruelty, but also because we simply do not know what might be long term effects of continually pouring substantial amounts of the poison into the environment’. 1080 is one of the main poisons used against dingoes, other canines and foxes, and is also used against rabbits and other herbivores. More specifically: ‘1080 poison is a slow killer. When ingested the animal suffers a prolonged and horrific death. … They may convulse and haemorrhage blood from ears, nose and mouth, respiratory muscles fail and they suffocate.’

As this group noted in an earlier publication, ‘aside from the physical pain endured over the many hours before death, the terror, fear and anxiety felt by these animals is unimaginable.’

Along with these and many more kill-focussed tutorials, feral.org offers educational materials for primary and secondary school teachers. You can download a PowerPoint for use in teaching children in years five and six. According to the site: ‘Pest Tales provides primary school teachers with a complete and up to date resource which highlights pest animal species in Australia, their impact and current ways of managing the damage they inflict on the environment, economy and people.’

I worked my way through the slides with mounting horror. The first question for the children to consider is: what is a pest? The first set of answers includes labels and photos: feral (photos of cat, goat, etc), exotic/introduced (cane toad, etc), invasive (fox, rabbits, horses), and pest (magpie, flying-foxes and possum). The definition of pest is ‘an animal detrimental to humans or human interests’, and the explanation of detriment is that ‘a pest is a matter of opinion’. If anyone was wondering where and how children learn human-centrism, this PowerPoint is a great resource. Within the parameters, human-centrism is unavoidable – if a pest is an animal detrimental to humans (actually, to be more objective, to some humans), then humans are the ones who  decide the animal is a pest.

It becomes clear just how impoverished this vision of animals and ecosystems really is when we stop to  consider the fact that there is no real engagement with population dynamics and Australian ecosystems.

Rabbits, wikimedia commons
Rabbits, wikimedia commons

It is difficult to imagine a more shallow approach to matters of life and death than to sidestep ethics and ecosystems, and portray complex issues as if they were opinions.

Another slide labelled ‘Run Rabbit Run’ lists all the methods that have been used to try to eradicate rabbits: poison baiting (ground and aerial), trapping, fencing, shooting, ferreting, hunting, snaring, scaring, release of predators such as foxes, fumigating warrens, ripping warrens, blasting warrens with explosives, disease – myxomatosis, disease – rabbit haemorrhagic disease, introduction of fleas to increase spread of disease. Please remember that this list of horrors  is being taught to young children.

Since none of these methods has actually been successful, and since no alternatives are offered, the future looks likely to be as steeped in suffering as has  the past. And what the children don’t learn is that the one predator that would have a good chance of keeping rabbits in check – the dingo – is itself considered a pest.

These websites and their ‘information’ offer evidence of the widespread, bureaucratised, tax-payer funded, university-based, industry-supported, socially sanctioned pursuit of killing as a way of inhabiting the land. The fact that the manufacturer of 1080, Animal Control Technologies (Australia) Pty Ltd, is a participant in the CRC is known as industry collaboration, and is therefore not seen as collusion. The killing is cloaked in the language of managerial efficiency, but the iconography tells the other story – of vilification, persecution, and justification.

Sign posted at Paroo-Darling National Park
Sign posted at Paroo-Darling National Park

At the end of the day there can be no doubt: frequently what passes for a job well done is actually another act of the most terrible cruelty in an on-going saga of death.

I keep coming back to the normalisation of all this death work, and to the mind-set that takes it for granted that if a non-human animal is annoying, ‘something’ should be done. To return to the koels in Canberra: the Liberals environmental spokeswomen was subjected to a fair bit of ridicule, but if we look at the issue from the viewpoints presented by the Invasive Animals CRC and its related websites, right was on her side. People were annoyed. The koels were doing it. They were, therefore,  pests (at least to some people). And as pests, they were a problem to be managed or eradicated.

An alternative to this mind-set is readily available.

It is not at all difficult to love the migratory koels. There comes a time when winter is on the way out, but spring hasn’t quite arrived. There are big winds, and often they are cold. In Sydney it feels like we will never warm up. And then – riding those huge winds, the koels arrive.

When I hear that call my heart lifts. A YouTube clip captures it nicely, and I love knowing that the name koel is onomatopoetic. This bird is readily identifiable and it tells a great story: the big air and ocean currents that govern the weather are shifting.

Approaching rain, outback Australia
Approaching rain, outback Australia

I remember the call from the Northern Territory which is where I first heard it. There, koels are also called rain birds, or storm birds, and they arrive in advance of the wet season. Their great travel path brings them from southeast Asia to Papua New Guinea and Australia where they breed and spend the summer before flying back in the autumn. The effort it takes to fly those great distances, coming with one set of winds and leaving when the winds shift again, shows us the absolute grace of nomadic mobility. The birds fit beautifully into the large circulations of life on earth.

I agree with my Aboriginal teachers – these birds bring good news. And the fact is, they leave. They have to leave if they are to come back again with more news. This is what they do – every year. The departure and the return are the rhythms of nomadic mobility, and in this time of rapid environmental change there is consolation in the fact that the winds and currents, and thus the koels, continue to live out their patterns and connections.

Blessed are those who arrive with good news, and blessed too is their departure.  May we all learn to say both ‘welcome’ and ‘fare thee well’.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)